Bassem Mroue – Associated Press January 12, 2007
The Iraqi foreign minister said today that the five Iranians detained by U.S.-led forces in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq were working in a liaison office that had government approval and was in the process of being approved as a consulate.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, also said U.S. forces tried to seize more people at the airport in Irbil, 220 miles north of Baghdad, prompting a confrontation with Kurdish troops guarding the facility that was resolved without casualties.
A Pentagon official in Washington said that after troops detained the people in the first building, they learned another person may have escaped and fled to the airport.
An American team went to the airport, where they "surprised" Kurdish forces, who apparently had not been informed they were coming, said the Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the incident on the record.
"No shots were fired; no one was injured; it was just a tense situation," said the official.
Local Kurdish authorities protested that they were not informed in advance about the arrests and raised fears that tensions between Iran and the United States were hurting Iraq's interests.
"We don't want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores with other countries," Zebari told CNN in an interview.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office, meanwhile, rejected President Bush's plans to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq as part of a new effort to curb rampant sectarian attacks.
"We reject Bush's new strategy and we think it will fail," said Abdul-Razzaq al-Nidawi, a senior official in al-Sadr's office. He said Iraq's problems were due to the presence of U.S. troops and called for their withdrawal.
In Washington, Sen. John McCain defended Bush's plan as difficult but necessary, parting company with lawmakers questioning the wisdom of the military build up.
"I believe that together these moves will give the Iraqis and Americans the best chance of success," said the Arizona Republican, a leading presidential contender for 2008.
McCain spoke at the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent a second day on Capitol Hill defending the president's strategy.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced last weekend his government would implement a new security plan for Baghdad, including neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps by Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops. Similar efforts have failed in the past because of the Shiite-dominated government's resistance to cracking down on militias such as the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to al-Sadr.
The Bush proposal calls for up to 12,000 additional Iraqi troops to secure Baghdad, which has been beset by sectarian violence, much of blamed on militias. Suspected Shiite militiamen today attacked a Sunni mosque in a religiously mixed neighborhood, prompting clashes that wounded two guards, police said.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said the Iraqi government recognized that the country was in a precarious position.
"We all have to recognize that the situation in Iraq is serious, it's dangerous, and this dynamics of violence cannot be sustained," he said in an interview with National Public Radio. "It must be the political will by us to do it."
The raids in Irbil came as U.S. officials repeated long-standing accusations that Iran is encouraging the violence in Iraq by supplying money and weapons.
The Iranians were detained Thursday as multinational forces entered the building overnight and confiscated computers and documents, two senior local Kurdish officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Six people suspected of being involved in attacks against Iraqi civilians and military forces were initially detained, the U.S. military said in a statement. One was later released. The statement did not identify the nationalities of the suspects.
Iraqi and Iranian officials initially said the Iranian office was a diplomatic mission, raising questions about whether those detained had diplomatic immunity. But Zebari told The Associated Press that the Iranians worked at a "liaison office" that was in the process of becoming a consulate.
"This office is not new and has been there for more than 10 years," he said. "We are now in the process of changing these offices to consulates and ... we will open consulates in Iran."
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the facility was an "office of relations" and that it was waiting for permission to operate as a consulate. The U.S. Embassy also said it was assured the building was not a consulate.
The regional Kurdish government condemned the arrests of the Iranians and called for their release. Many Kurds, including Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have close ties to Iran. Last month, U.S. troops detained at least two Iranians and released two others who had diplomatic immunity. Two of those detained were visiting as guests of Talabani, his spokesman said.
Zebari also said American forces went to the Irbil airport on Thursday but did not identify themselves or give advance notice to local authorities.
"No party had knowledge of this matter and that is why the force protecting the airport tried to interfere and find out who they were and what they were doing," he said.
In Tehran, Iran's Foreign Ministry said it summoned the Iraqi and Swiss ambassadors and "demanded an explanation" about the Irbil incident. Switzerland represents American interests in Iran.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Thursday that the detained Iranians were being questioned. The U.S. Embassy declined to give an update today.
Last updated 16/01/2007